The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.
— Bertrand Russell
There are over five and a half billion cell phones in the world, nearly all equipped with cameras: an orgy of recording of life as it passes. Our age has seen an explosion of this peculiarly human activity — recording activity — on a scale scarcely comprehensible even by those who've lived through it. What changes has this revolution wrought, not only in how we see the world, but how we live in it?
Not so many years ago, taking a photograph was a painstaking business; film was expensive, and there were no do-overs. The ordinary person might take a few rolls, say 96 or 144 or 288 exposures over the course of a holiday, composing each one with the greatest patience and care; they were very easy to spoil, since the camera could be opened again only when the film had absolutely for sure been rewound all the way. Then each roll was lovingly stored in its own little canister, away from extremes of temperature, and once home, they were dropped off at a processor, or sent by snail mail in special mailers; many anxious days would pass before the results came back, the occasion of hard-won rage or bliss scarcely imaginable today.
Nowadays one takes hundreds of images in an afternoon without a moment's thought. The suspense over whether or not a photograph "came out" lasts for seconds, not weeks, and if it didn't come out we can often try again, five times, a dozen times.
No other earthly creature tries to keep something of its own vanishing moments — that we know of, I mean. Who knows what Unamuno's crab might not get up to, in his spare time. That is one great difference that separates us from other animals. Later developments indicate another, newer and more complex difference: we are increasingly conscious of the nature and purposes as well as the ultimate futility of the attempt.
MB: We're recording what is happening almost in real time. What's that doing to us, to the audience, to you, to your market?
TS: The audience almost requires it... for a more sophisticated audience, you can put together a story over six months, but in a Newsweek or Time, it almost has to be shot as it's happening.
JD: It's old news two days later.
TS: You couldn't sell it two days later. Yeah, it's almost in real time... I think there's a serotonin squirt the brain gets from the immediacy. This is everywhere. During Occupy L.A., on the last day that the police were brought in. I was photographing the captain that was in charge of the operations. And he's working his BlackBerry, and he sent the word in via BlackBerry.
JD: I got some photos over their shoulders of them texting stuff. Have you ever seen as many cameras, that the cops have now? Really really good cameras. Hardcore. They film everything.
Recordings are proliferating in part because the cost of special equipment and the time and expertise required to make films, books, images, songs, have all shrunk by an astonishing amount in just the last two decades. That means, among other things, that culture is no longer made for us by others. Increasingly, ordinary individuals are able to roll their own, each of us creating a world that is increasingly the fruit of our own experiences: our own videos, books, blogs, and images made from the materials of our own lives. Increasingly, we own our own worlds.
Increasingly, the truth is what we're investigating and provisionally agreeing on together
Because the flood of images, of artifacts and imaginings surrounding us need no longer have originated outside oneself, the power of many former cultural authorities has weakened. Television news is less important when we can learn faster about breaking news on Twitter; national glossy magazines are competing for our attention with potently attractive writing and art on blogs with a staff of one. Which seems like not necessarily such a big deal, but this alteration has affected not only the manner in which information is recorded and consumed; it is beginning to alter the nature of truth itself. Truth used to consist in what we were told by authorities; increasingly, the truth is what we're investigating and provisionally agreeing on together.
For me, the first striking intimations of this shift came in 2006, when California congressional candidate Howard Kaloogian posted photos of a trip he'd made to Baghdad, claiming that they showed that "Iraq (including Baghdad) is much more calm and stable than what many people believe it to be. But each day, the news media finds any violence occurring in the country and screams and shouts about it — in part because many journalists are opposed to the U.S. effort to fight terrorism." There was just one problem: the photos Kaloogian had posted were not of Iraq, but of Istanbul. It took a matter of days for the readers of Daily Kos to pinpoint the true location where the photos were shot, once the original rat had been smelled.
In former times, there was infinitely less ammunition available against such attempts to spin some story for the benefit of some politician, company or cause. The Kaloogian story demonstrated that the truth could be determined entirely outside the purview of professional media interests. The web had grown large enough that individuals could band together to verify facts faster and better than traditional media could. Not always, not exclusively — the hive mind will maybe always be impossible to control or focus reliably — but sometimes. This was a mind-blowing realization. The next day, the New York Times caught up with the Kaloogian story.
In a recent Brooklyn Rail interview, the painter Gary Stephan approached the political role and significance of art from a postmodernist perspective. "[A] foundation of the Modernist argument is the idea that the text is open and that the readings of it are co-constructed by the object and the viewer," he said. "But what’s worth remembering is how new that construction is because it’s replacing, at least in France, David and Ingres, who made paintings that are completely authoritative, that were supposed to have one reading and only one reading […] painting had been an instrument of state authority and was designed to tell the viewer that the state was in charge, you’re in good hands, everything’s okay. With Cézanne, you get something that comes along and says, no, it’s all up for grabs […] The bourgeoisie are coming into the world, they’re disrupting the dualism of the ruling class and the peasantry and everything is suspect, the roles, the positions in society, the very objects, including the painted objects, are all being reevaluated."
It seems we are undergoing a new period of reevaluation something like the Modernist one, but instead of "disrupting the dualism of the ruling class and the peasantry" it's proposing disintermediation on a vast scale.
If one creates one's own surroundings, one creates one's own reality, yes, but far more importantly, the reality you make yourself is a challenge, conscious or not, to any authoritative version of events. Without really realizing it we've gone a step beyond Cezanne's proposition (or Roland Barthes') that reality is a matter of co-creation. Which do you trust more: a Twitter photograph sent in by a witness to a rally, disaster or crime scene, or the "official" photograph published by newspapers the next day? And what does that say about culture as "an instrument of state authority"?
In a recent BuzzFeed piece, John Herrman posted a series of screengrabs of images on Instagram taken by witnesses to dramatic events, together with the comments on those images from major news outlets offering publication (though not, it would appear, money) to these avocational photographers who happened to be in the right place at the right time. In one way this seems to suggest that "professional" photographers are no longer needed as much; in another way, the growing sophistication and interest in making our own recordings and images of events might mean that these skills, being better understood, will eventually be all the more highly valued. Already it seems better, truer, to think of fine photographers like Soqui and Dermansky as gifted fellow-seekers, leaders, teachers, than it does to think of them as having a job apart from our own.
That immediacy and connection goes both ways, too: it's very stimulating for an artist to communicate with fellow artists at a higher level of understanding, more interesting to engage with the world more fully.
The reality you make yourself is a challenge, conscious or not, to any authoritative version of events
MB: As we become more capable of recording an event at the moment it's happening, are we judging less, and seeing more? Maybe we're not interposing our ideas of how things should be, as much, between ourselves and the reality.
JD: I gotta stop you there. Here's the thing: a lot of people are. However, an artist, or photojournalist, has a visual language, so they can take what you're doing with your cellphone to a different level, because they're not just filming it because it's there […]
As an artist, just... imagine being in your painting studio, and you have to get it all from inside yourself; I can understand how people get burned out. But as a photographer you can just go somewhere you're interested in, and it's right frickin' in front of you.
A growing number of artists, including Errol Morris and Banksy, are providing a mirror for these changes as they occur. Morris's whole shtick is the open interrogation of "respectable," "standard," or "authoritative" readings of images, accounts and recordings of all kinds. These artists are lifting the many shells under which we might expect to find the "truth," and it's still a little shocking to find that there is rarely anything to be found under any of them. There is a strong possibility, they suggest, that you have to put the pea under there yourself.
MB: What are you thinking, then, when you're photographing?
TS: I'm thinking what does the camera see, and what do I want it to see, and how do I get it to see what I think I want to see?
MB: What do you want it to see?
TS: Well... sometimes you want to see beautiful things, or you want to see like, that dead dolphin... so many things. But you have to know what the camera does, what it can do. You're thinking about that.
Sometimes I would like to meet that girl over there, or I want to take a bad picture of that politician, because I know he's going to ruin America, or that policeman is like, the worst guy I've ever seen, I want to take a photo that makes him look like that. What's hittin' you at the time. But it's like, what f-stop do I have to use to make that guy look like a real jerk.
JD: You don't censor what's in front of you; a photographer can't really censor what they're seeing. You can control the depth of field and the speed you're shooting at, but you can't control what's outside you...
There was this fish kill I shot, my friend and I had gone looking for it, the sun was going down. So we turn down this thing and the smell... you couldn't believe. But he said I was squealing, like he'd never seen someone so happy. I was having these moments, with the light... it was insane, it all different species of fish, and the water looked like oil, everything was clogged, and you're just like lost, inside this thing.
The phrase "observer effect" has a number of different connotations: in physics it refers to effects caused by the observation on the phenomenon being observed, say by instruments used in measuring; in IT, you might invoke the same phrase to describe how internal logging will cause a program to slow. Our obsession with recording has, I think, such an effect, and it's increasing all the time. We are altered first by the act of watching, as in a fine description I once read of a Rembrandt self-portrait: all absorbed in the greed of seeing. And now we begin to be altered again and again, recursively, observing ourselves as we observe. Seeing one another as fellow-observers, fellow makers of records; they are observing themselves observing; observing us observing.
Human self-awareness is multiplying itself onto an altogether new plane.
Our experience of the world becomes more and more like looking in an ever-more-complex series of mirrors and seeing an infinity of our own reflections, a multiplicitous, accelerating version of the phenomenon called mise en abyme, the object depicted within itself.
Illustration by Steve Kim